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The First Photographs of Lightning Crackle with Electric Chaos

William N. Jennings, notebook page with photograph of lightning (1887), gelatin silver prints mounted onto bound notepad paper (courtesy George Eastman Museum, collection of Louis Walton Sipley)
William N. Jennings, notebook page with photograph of lightning (1887), gelatin silver prints mounted onto bound notepad paper (courtesy George Eastman Museum, collection of Louis Walton Sipley)

Lightning in paintings before the dawn of photography often appeared as a bright zig-zag slicing through the sky, such as the simple line that streaks across Gaspard Dughet’s 1667–69 “Landscape with Lightning” at the Hermitage Museum or the lazy jag of white in Eugène Delacroix’s 1825–29 “Horse Frightened by Lightning.” In the 1880s, William Nicholson Jennings set out to prove the diversity and unpredictability of lightning’s path, capturing the electric light with his plate camera.

An 1882 photograph of lightning by William N. Jennings (via Wikimedia)
An 1882 photograph of lightning by William N. Jennings (via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

A series of his 1887 photographs are on view in Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan. After the exhibition closes on May 30, it will reopen at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, on June 18. Sight Reading explores the persuasive use of photography going back to the 1840s through over 80 works, many on loan from the Eastman Museum. Curated by Joel Smith of the Morgan and Lisa Hostetler of the Eastman Museum, Sight Reading especially excels with its more obscure scientific work, including a beautiful 1967 photomosaic compiled from images taken by NASA’s Surveyor, and more dubious undertakings like Richard Sharpe Shaver’s 1970s photographs of rocks, which he believed to be ancient alien transmissions (previously explored on Hyperallergic).

It must be noted that Jennings wasn’t the only lightning photographer in the 19th century, and although he’s often credited as taking the first photograph of lightning on September 2, 1882, there are contenders, like Thomas Martin Easterly’s 1847 daguerreotype of “a streak of lightning” in 1847Charles Mousette in France took a series of photographs of lightning and storms in the 1880s. There were also 1800s photographers carrying their glass plate cameras out into inclement weather to photograph swirling tornadoes. Yet when Jennings published his photographs in Scientific American to acclaim, there was a widespread enthusiasm sparked in both the scientific and artistic communities for these startling blazes of light.

In an introduction accompanying the 1887 lightning photographs, it’s stated:

In 1880, W.N. Jennings, of Philadelphia, noticed that Artists only depicted one form of lightning — an awkward zig-zag, and he decided to see what the camera would show. For over fifteen years he made lightning photographs in various parts of the world; no two of which were alike, and none ‘zig-zag.’

William N. Jennings's lightning photographs on view in 'Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World' at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William N. Jennings’s lightning photographs on view in ‘Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World’ at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

To emphasize the point, a little ink-drawn zig-zag is one card, and alongside examples like the “ribbon” lightning with its long bristling arch and the “stratified” lightning crawling across the North Dakota prairie, the photographs revel in the visual chaos of lightning. Much as Luke Howard’s early 19th-century studies on clouds influenced artistic depictions of the skies, resulting in clouds less bulbous clumps and more stratified and texturally animated, so did Jennings’s photographs encourage a closer look at the quick flashes of torrential nature. Contemporary artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto with his “lightning fields” photographs, and even land art pieces like Walter De Maria’s 1977 “The Lightning Field” which draws lightning strikes to western New Mexico, are in a way descended from this early appreciation of electric weather.

According to a 1939 issue of Popular Science, Jennings’s “first efforts proved unsuccessful, the photographic plates available were not sensitive enough. Jennings refused to be discouraged, however, and a year later a pioneer film maker, John Carbutt, produced a superior emulsion and supplied the experimenter with a boxful.” Some of these lightning shots he took from his roof in Philadelphia, an act that would no doubt have pleased the city’s favorite founding father and electric kite flyer Benjamin Franklin. One of Jennings other photographic feats was documenting Philadelphia from a balloon in 1893, and the hundreds of images he took in the city, along with examples of lightning photographs, are now part of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Jennings Photograph Collection. Yet an exhibition of his images remains rare, so seeing the lightning photographs laid flat in a glass case for Sight Reading is an opportunity to take a close look at some of the world’s first documentation of this ephemeral, spectacular weather phenomenon.

William Jennings's September 2, 1882 "first photograph of lightning" (via WHYY)
William Jennings’s September 2, 1882 “first photograph of lightning” (via WHYY)
William N. Jennings's lightning photographs on view in 'Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World' at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William N. Jennings’s lightning photographs on view in ‘Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World’ at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William N. Jennings's lightning photographs on view in 'Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World' at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William N. Jennings’s lightning photographs on view in ‘Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World’ at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William N. Jennings's lightning photographs on view in 'Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World' at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
William N. Jennings’s lightning photographs on view in ‘Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World’ at the Morgan Library & Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World continues through May 30 at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan). 

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